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Death of baby at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital

Successful claim against hospital for failures of obstetric and midwifery care

Posted on 04 February 2010

Nicola Wainwright at Leigh Day & Co has successfully concluded a claim against Chelsea & Westminster Hospital for failures of obstetric and midwifery care.  Tragically these failings led to the death of our clients, Katie and Ben Harman’s baby, Ella, when she was only six days old.

Mrs Harman’s pregnancy with Ella proceeded smoothly.  It was planned that she would be admitted to Chelsea & Westminster Hospital for induction of labour on 5 October 2006 if the baby had not arrived by then.  Mrs Harman’s contractions started on 3 October 2006 and by 5am the following morning they were much stronger and more frequent.  However, when she called Chelsea & Westminster Hospital she was advised on two separate occasions that there was no bed available for her and she should wait at home. 

These repeated delays meant that Mrs Harman did not arrive at the hospital until around 7.30 that morning.  Even then the midwife did not bother examining her because she was about to go off shift.  The first proper examination was not carried out until an hour and 20 minutes later, when Mrs Harman was found to be nearly ready to deliver.  By this time, unfortunately, there were signs that the baby was in distress and the obstetrician was called.  Only then was it established that the baby was in breech position, which no one had noticed until then, and needed urgent delivery.

Baby was in breech position

The Consultant Obstetrician advised Mrs Harman to attempt a vaginal delivery, despite obvious signs that the baby was already in distress.  However, it was left to a more junior doctor to attempt to deliver Ella by forceps, which she was unable to do, delaying Ella’s delivery by 45 - 60 minutes. The junior doctor managed to deliver Ella’s body but the Consultant had to be called to deliver her head over 10 minutes later. 

Sadly, Ella was born in very poor condition.  She was pale and not breathing.  Her heart rate was extremely low.  She required resuscitation and was admitted to the neonatal unit.  Mr and Mrs Harman were advised that she had suffered brain damage and was unlikely to recover.  Sadly, Ella passed away in the early hours of 9 October 2006.

Mr and Mrs Harman were advised by the hospital that a post mortem would not be necessary because the cause of Ella’s death was a lack of oxygen due to her breech position and the problems with delivery.

Chelsea & Westminster Hospital carried out an internal inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Ella’s birth and concluded that the Consultant had given the incorrect advice about the options for delivery. They accepted that Ella should have been delivered by caesarean section because of the signs that she was in distress.  However, Mr and Mrs Harman were concerned about other aspects of the care that they and Ella had received in particular the delays in Mrs Harman’s admission to hospital, the failure to diagnose that Ella was in breech position earlier, the failure of the doctors to react to the signs that Ella was in distress and the fact that Ella’s birth was left to a junior doctor who was unable to achieve instrumental delivery.  However, the hospital did not fully respond to these concerns and it was for this reason that Mr and Mrs Harman consulted Leigh Day & Co to try to obtain answers to their outstanding questions.

Caesarean section should have been offered

In August 2007 Chelsea & Westminster Hospital admitted that Ella should have been delivered by way of caesarean section rather than attempted vaginal delivery.  However, they refused to comment on the earlier aspects of Mrs Harman’s and Ella’s care.  Moreover, they refused to admit that it was the hospital’s failings that had caused Ella’s death.  Mr and Mrs Harman found this particularly upsetting given that the hospital had advised them that a post mortem would not be necessary because the cause of death was clear.  We made repeated requests to the hospital’s representatives to make a full admission of liability but they refused to do so.  In addition, we made an offer to settle the claim for compensation so as to bring the matter to as swift a conclusion as possible.  We claimed compensation for the pain and suffering that Ella had experienced and the psychological injuries and associated losses that Mr and Mrs Harman had suffered as a result of witnessing the traumatic circumstances surrounding Ella’s birth and death. 

Despite the hospital’s admission of poor care when we provided them with all the necessary evidence in support of the claim no reasonable offer to settle was forthcoming.  This left Mr and Mrs Harman with no choice but to obtain independent expert evidence on the cause of Ella’s death and to issue Court Proceedings in order to bring the claim to a conclusion.  Our independent expert confirmed that in his view Ella’s death was caused by Chelsea & Westminster Hospital’s negligence and he stated that had Ella been delivered earlier by way of caesarean section she would have avoided her brain damage and so would have survived.

Court Proceedings were issued and served on Chelsea & Westminster Hospital.  Only then did the hospital make a full admission of liability and we were able to enter Judgment against them.  Shortly, afterwards we were able to agree the amount of compensation they should pay. As part of the settlement our clients asked Chelsea & Westminster Hospital to provide them with evidence that their practises and procedures had been changed to ensure that what had happened to them and Ella would not happen to another family.  Approximately five months after we first requested it the hospital provided confirmation of the action they had taken as a result of the review into the circumstances surrounding Ella’s death, which included new policies on staffing capacity and emergency labour ward procedure and new management of breech presentation guidelines.

Our clients obtained some satisfaction from finally obtaining full admission of responsibility for Ella’s death from Chelsea & Westminster Hospital and reassurance that they had, at least, changed some of their procedures in order to prevent the same happening again, but the initial refusal to admit responsibility and the fact that the admission was only forthcoming after they had instructed solicitors, obtained their own expert evidence and issued and served Court proceedings detracted from this.

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